• Denine Rogers

Examining Herbs and Spices from a Functional Food Perspective

As National Nutrition Month (NNM) is coming to a close, I had the chance to write an NNM article for my job. Here is the article below:

Examining Herbs and Spices from a Functional Food Perspective

Whether you plant them or pick them up at the grocery store or farmers' market, adding fresh herbs and spices are a quick way to transform ordinary meals into extraordinary meals. Besides helping flavor foods when cutting back on salt, fat, and sugar, herbs and spices may offer additional benefits of their own. Researchers are finding many culinary herbs and spices (both fresh and dried) that have antioxidants that may help protect against such diseases as cancer and heart disease.

But what is the difference between herbs and spices?

Herbs are leafy green or flowering parts of a plant that are either fresh or dried.  Examples of herbs are basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and mint.   Spices come from the bark (Cinnamon), root (ginger, onion, garlic), buds (cloves, saffron), seeds (yellow mustard, poppy, sesame), berry (black pepper) or the fruit (allspice, paprika) of tropical plants and trees. 

Herbs and spices can help to retain flavor in your foods and provide the health benefits that you would need.  The term “functional foods” is used to describe foods or food ingredients that contain health benefits beyond meeting basic nutrition needs. The inclusion of these types of foods can provide further protection against chronic disease and condition development.  So why are herbal and spice treatments so crucial in the protection of certain diseases?  The primary goal of herbal and spice treatments is to restore the body to balance.

The synergy in herbs and spices occurs when two or more compounds interact in a way that helps to increase the effect of an herbal or spices formula.  One compound may enhance the absorption of a compound that produces the desired effect.  It is important to note that herbs and spices can work synergistically, meaning that they work together to enhance the medicinal effect. On the other hand, various constituents within a single herb or spice are all needed in combination to be effective.  This concept explains why a whole herb or extract is more therapeutically effective than any of its constituents. That is also why combining different herbs and spices can be more effective. 

Some evidence-based research documents have proven herbs and spices have health-protective benefits.

Saffron is a traditional spice coloring agent and medicinal agent used for over 3000 years. Saffron widespread usage is in countries such as Iran, India, Greece, Spain, and Italy. In one small, a clinical trial where 15 mgs of saffron extracts taken orally twice daily for 16 weeks improved cognitive ability and disease progression compared to placebo in patients with probable Alzheimer's disease. Several clinical studies demonstrated that taking saffron extract 30 mg daily or saffron 100 mg daily for 6-12 weeks improves symptoms of major depression.

Fenugreek is an aromatic, clover-like herb that is native to the Mediterranean region, southern Europe, and western Asia.  Fenugreek seeds have been used in cooking, as medicine, or to mask the taste of medications.  The taste and odor of fenugreek seed resemble maple syrup. Some clinical research shows that taking fenugreek seed improves measures of blood glucose control such as postprandial and fasting blood glucose levels, glucose tolerance test results, and 24-hour urinary glucose in patients with type 2 diabetes.

Anise is one of the oldest known spice plants. It grows in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Spain, West Asia, Mexico, Egypt, and the Middle East. The seed is used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.  Clinical research in adults with postprandial distress syndrome shows that taking anise powder 3 grams three times daily for four weeks improves symptoms of functional dyspepsia compared to placebo.  In other clinical research in adults with IBS shows that taking enteric-coated anise oil 200 mg three times daily for four weeks eliminates IBS symptoms in 75% of patients compared to 52.5% of patients taking peppermint oil and 35% taking placebo.

In closing, it is essential to ensure that any herbal and spices therapies do not interfere with any other medications or treatments.  Make sure to discuss any therapeutic herbs and spices treatments with your medical doctor.

What Types of Herbs and Spices That You Love to Cook With in the Kitchen?

About the Author:  Today’s nutrition newsletter on Examining Herbs and Spices from a Functional Food Perspective was prepared by Denine Rogers, MS, RDN, LD, FAND (Atlanta). Denine has a passion for learning about herbal medicine and aromatherapy that she received her Master's Degree in this field. In her free time, she enjoys walking her dogs (2 black labs), volunteering as a Master Gardener, making her essential oil soap, playing the flute, and spending time with her husband.


Akhondzadeh S, Sabet MS, Harirchian MH, Togha M, Cheraghmakani H, Razeghi S, Hejazi SSh, Yousefi MH, Alimardani R, Jamshidi A, Zare F, Moradi A. Saffron in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: a 16-week, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2010 Oct;35(5):581-8.

Ghoshegir SA, Mazaheri M, Ghannadi A, et al. Pimpinella anisum in the treatment of functional dyspepsia: A double-blind, randomized clinical trial. J Res Med Sci 2015;20:13-21.

Henneman, A., & Browning, S. (2003).Healthy Cooking with Fresh Herbs Cooperative Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Henneman, A., (2003). Add a Little Spice (& Herbs) to Your Life! Cooperative Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Madar Z, Abel R, Samish S, Arad J. Glucose-lowering effect of fenugreek in non-insulin dependent diabetics. Eur J Clin Nutr 1988;42:51-4

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